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Precision Approach

Air Traffic: Boeing launches satellite air-traffic pitch.

Air travel delays are bad and promise to get worse; the Federal Aviation Administration’s current “build a little, test a little” strategy for air traffic control modernization isn’t expected to keep pace with exploding long-term passenger demand. Now Boeing is throwing its corporate might behind a more ambitious technological overhaul: a new air traffic control infrastructure based on satellite tracking rather than radar. Boeing CEO Philip M. Condit first floated the idea in January; the company plans to publicly flesh out the details this month.

In theory, tools based on satellite-derived Global Positioning System data can increase air traffic capacity, says Carl McCullough, an FAA director. “The really precise information that only GPS can give you allows reduced separation between aircraft and more direct routes,” he says. And the FAA is building a nationwide system for refining and verifying GPS signals to allow satellite-based instrument approaches at thousands of small and medium-sized airports.

Satellite-based air traffic control is already being used in places as far-flung as Australia, Mongolia and parts of Alaska-regions with little or no radar coverage. In addition, the air cargo industry is testing satellite tools and datalinks to speed overnight sorting operations by compressing takeoffs and landings.

But around congested cities, satellite information and aircraft datalinks can’t be relied upon for collision avoidance and spacing unless every airplane-from jumbo jet to Cessna-is retrofitted with relatively expensive new gear. Even then, the advantages over radar at busy airports aren’t evident, says Raymond LaFrey, manager of air traffic control programs at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, MA, which does research for the FAA. “I’m sort of puzzled by this announcement,” LaFrey says. “Phil Condit is a very savvy guy, and he’s a good plane builder. But I don’t know what they are thinking of, and I don’t think anyone else does, either.”

However, Joe Platzner, a Boeing air-traffic management director, says the aerospace giant is “committed to spending a lot of money, a lot of people, a lot of research and a lot of engineering effort to make sure the system will have the capability, safety, and affordability we need.” Platzner says the company’s first job is to make air-traffic overhaul “a public policy priority.” After that, the solutions will require more organization than innovation. “The more important thing,” Platzner says, “is taking technology that exists, and doing large-scale system integration.”

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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